Michael Trapido
Michael Trapido

Apartheid impact: ‘Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious’

Oscar Wilde’s quote, which I like to qualify with Mark Twain’s “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”

Expedience, however, usually dictates that we follow that which we perceive to be in our own self-interest. The masses are swept along, being driven by the few, unwilling to change in case it disturbs their comfort zone.

Examine closely this article that appeared in the Daily Mail (UK).

It’s entitled “Day off from Auschwitz” and has photographs taken during the death camp’s “heyday”; that is, when it was gassing tens of thousands of people every month.

Study the faces of the men and women in those pictures. Try to see if they resemble people you know, living now. Look closely because you are studying the human beings who inflicted the most barbaric torture and murder of the 20th century.

Remove the uniforms, subtract the Auschwitz component and I’ll bet you anything that these were normal people conscripted into the army. Happy conscripts, no doubt, but in the main doing national service along the lines of that carried on by South Africans during apartheid.

Once there, they set about performing their daily tasks, all the while consoling themselves with the thought that it was something their country and government expected, even demanded from them. Of course what their country demanded was genocide — lest we forget.

There are your monsters, for what they carried out ranks among the worst, if not the worst, atrocities in the history of mankind.

Yet, to look at them they are the kind of people you would find at a company picnic or an office function. To deny this is to delude yourself into believing that we are incapable of becoming them. We are them! Each and every one of us is capable of inflicting or ignoring what they did.

Not South Africans per se, but human beings — them and capable of worse. Capable of watching Rwandans being subjected to genocide knowing, beyond any measure of a doubt, that this is what was going on. Capable of watching Sudan and Eastern Europe descend into these depths and doing nothing.

The Holocaust, during its occurrence, was not as well known as the latter genocides and yet geo-political and economic factors prescribe inaction.

What possible considerations can there be for not intervening in Darfur?

Spare me any answers.

While most white South Africans are Afrikaans speaking, there is a very substantial English minority as well.

In order for apartheid to have been implemented and then continued, it needed the majority support of all white South Africans. I get very angry when I see apartheid being classified as an Afrikaner thing; it’s a white thing.

It is irrelevant that the term was coined by Jan Smuts, had its origins in British colonial rule and developed as a direct result of ongoing negotiations between the British and Boers at the turn of the 20th century.

It is relevant that it stayed in place until the birth of a multiracial democracy in 1994.

It was continued despite sanctions, two-year military service, censorship, the hardships it inflicted on black and coloured people and the fact that educated people should have known and did know that the system was evil.

Take a normal South African (well, I’m not well but I do take the tablets). I went to school and the army, and pursued a legal career. All of it within that system. My cousin Joel Bolnick bucked the system and had to flee the country after being placed under house arrest, and my other cousin, Professor Stanley Trapido (Lincoln College, Oxford, England) attacked the government at every turn (husband of Barbara — the author).

They were morally braver than I ever would be. For me to do what they did would have meant risking my life and, for most of us even worse, the comfort zone we all fall into.

The fact that many whites subscribed to it, who classified it as unacceptable, can be seen from the scale of the number and category of those who have left for pastures new. They can’t bring children up in a “crime-riddled” country, yet were happy to stay and bring them up when faced with a potential Mau Mau.

Apartheid flourished because it suited those who benefited from it to retain it.

Effects of apartheid
Unlike the pictures of the camp at Auschwitz, which are scarce, you can source billions of reminders of the people of apartheid; like the monsters from the camp, normal human beings, the likes of which you’ll find the world over.

This is why the Holocaust deniers are so dangerous. If we try to ignore what mankind is capable of, we will repeatedly be reminded.

Apartheid was not a holocaust but it has left millions of victims. Like a holocaust we must forgive but never forget, lest we be confronted with it again.

What is the legacy we have left to ourselves and future generations?

Millions of uneducated people who, in the main are unable to find suitable employment, if at all, and a number of who have turned to crime as a solution. Millions of people without proper housing, water, electricity, clothing, medicines or even food. In tandem with the education problem we have a breeding ground for Aids and other illnesses, many of which could be controlled but for the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

We have left the suffering of those who died as a result of a barbaric system, along with the mistrust between races that decades of division has occasioned; the anger that comes with missed opportunity, flowing from race discrimination. Many whites are now feeling a fraction of the pain and humiliation that was suffered by their black counterparts during apartheid.

Apartheid’s effects on South Africa and beyond will be felt for centuries, rather than decades, to come.

Turning point
While we are capable of terrible acts and horrendous deeds, so too are we capable of great acts of kindness and forgiveness.

Madiba emerged from 27 years of prison and bridged the great divide — a divide that cost him a quarter of his life and subjected him to unbelievable hardship. President Mbeki has continued to build on this start and kept us on the road to transformation.

Blacks and whites have begun the long process of cementing the jigsaw puzzle into a single unit. It will be a long, agonising marathon rather than a short sprint, but all things being equal, of great benefit to us all.

It might also stand us all in good stead to recall the words of Ambrose Bierce: “‘My country right or wrong’ is a thing no patriot would think of saying, except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother drunk or sober.'”

  • kosie

    excellent piece…my wish is that every white south african, young and old, read this (or something like it) to reflect on what it means. we (the whites) were no good at reflecting back then; we are useless at doing it now…

  • Jon Quirk

    I am a post 1990’s South African which I feel gives me better grounds for objectivity re Apartheid.Trapido says it was not an Afrikaaner thing; I disagree. Examine the system in it’s totality. Who were the beneficiaries of Government largesse, employment in all arms of the state, ran the military police etc; ’nuff said

  • Jeremy

    That being said: (to paraphrase) Those who would erase history are doomed to repeat it.

    Name changes and monument destruction, anyone?

  • MidaFo

    Of course it was an Afrikaner thing.

    Many Blacks, many “Coloureds” also participated.

    But to take this as meaning it was not an English speaking South African thing is simply and laughably idiotic.

    The evil caressed and painted us all and will for generations as Jon Quirk’s comment clearly and typically displays.

  • Jon Quirk

    The irony of Jeremy’s comment that “those who ignore history are bound to repeat it” are somewhat both prophetic and ironic considering the present machinations in South Africa. I wonder if he read justice Malala’s piece “Deafening silence as Mbeki and Co reduce South Africa to a state of fear”. It went ….

    I am angry and I am afraid. I am deeply afraid for my country.

    The sound of silence has fallen over our country while the government of President Thabo Mbeki, in its anger and its shame over its numerous failures and acts of deceit, uses state security apparatus to go after every man and woman who dares to speak truth to power.

    While all this happens, the many good men and women in Cabinet, in government, in business, in the trade unions and in civil society, keep quiet. Where are the good men and women of the United Democratic Front? Where are the many good men and women of the SA Council of Churches, such as Brigalia Bam?

    They are silent. They are in agreement while the democracy they fought for is abused to protect the increasingly paranoid and discredited presidency of Mbeki and to settle petty personal scores.

    We should all hang our heads in shame.

    I write this having just heard that the editor of this newspaper, Mondli Makhanya, and its head of investigations, Jocelyn Maker, will be arrested this week. Their crime is that they published a story alleging that the Minister of Health, Dr Manto Tshabalala- Msimang, screamed at hospital staff and drank huge amounts of booze while in hospital for a shoulder operation.

    The minister, the custodian of our nation’s health, has denied none of these allegations. This newspaper also published allegations that Tshabalala- Msimang was a drunk and a thief. This story has not been refuted by the minister nor any other government official.

    Instead, the minister of Health has abused public funds by getting two of her generals to publish wasteful, unintelligible advertisements in various newspapers to allege that it is a crime to access personal medical records. No one has said a word about the public interest. Instead, the case was handed to the Western Cape’s top detective.

    The imminent arrest of Makhanya and Maker is nothing new in the ignominy that is now the Mbeki regime. It has long been alleged that Jacob Zuma, the ANC’s deputy president, was investigated by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) under Bulelani Ngcuka, husband of the current deputy president, because he dared dream of succeeding Mbeki while the President did not wish it to be so.

    I have always dismissed this allegation as conspiratorial bunkum. I am not so sure anymore. Where once I would have asked Zuma’s supporters to show me the evidence, I am forced to ask Mbeki and his cronies to show me the evidence that they did not indeed set the Scorpions on Zuma’s trail.

    Of course, the worst abuse of state apparatus is playing itself out today while we consider the fact that Makhanya and Maker will be arrested, prosecuted and perhaps even jailed. That abuse is the refusal by Mbeki to let the law take its course and have National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi, an Mbeki confidante, arrested by the Scorpions.

    Mbeki went to extraordinary lengths to stop the current NPA head, Vusi Pikoli, from arresting Selebi on corruption-related charges, despite a warrant of arrest and search warrants being issued by magistrates and judges.

    But Mbeki went further. For more than a week he and his office lied to the public and the parliamentary opposition about the existence of such a warrant. These past two weeks they have been going to extraordinary lengths to cover up this outrage.

    The question has to be asked: is this the South Africa of Nelson Mandela and Albert Luthuli? Did the heroes of June 1976 and the veterans of the fires of the ’80s lose out on schooling and normal lives to be in a country where journalists are prosecuted as happened under apartheid?

    The Mbeki regime has been an unmitigated disaster from the onset.

    But ineptitude — ranging from the failure to deal with HIV/Aids and rampant crime to consorting with criminals such as Robert Mugabe — is different from pure, unadulterated corruption such as we see unfolding today in the Pikoli saga and now the persecution of Makhanya and Maker.

    These are steps into the worlds of Mobutu Sese Seko and Mugabe. Only 13 years into our democracy, Mbeki’s Stalinist learnings are fully on show: journalists and editors arrested and jailed; opponents jailed on trumped-up charges; everyone in government living in fear that they are being followed, watched and bugged.

    How long before a bullet arrives for a pesky journalist or Jacob Zuma? Remember, we used to say Mbeki would not interfere with the judiciary. We were wrong.

    The worst part of this whole outrage is that Makhanya and Maker could go to jail. They will go to jail while good men and women stand and watch. They will be jailed while Mandela and many others stand and watch while the country they fought for so valiantly falls deeper into the hands of a corrupt and power- mad coterie at the Union Buildings.

    I am angry and I am afraid. But mostly I am ashamed. Ashamed and embarrassed to call myself South African. Ashamed that in this country we all keep quiet while evil is so routinely perpetuated by a bunch we ourselves put into power.

    When, one day, we open our eyes and our mouths, our children will not have a country to live in. This country will be a Zimbabwe because we allowed Mbeki and his cronies to rape it.

  • MidaFo

    All of what you say, Jon Quirk, seems valid, with some give or take regarding a chauvinistic tendency see only what suits your aim. It is remarkable that a man with such vision cannot look at himself with the same searching beam.

    But then righteous anger is always blind.

    You see the first post remains remarkably weak and to point out the weakness of the Mbeki regime in this context is simply to try to hide behind it while it also obscures the point of a commendable article, which ironically is a tactic the apartheid regime perfected.

    Any connection?

  • Grant W

    MidaFo, would you then lump those that voted against the Nats and for the opposition into the same group as loyal Nat voters? Thats like saying the Democrats in America are loving the Iraq invasion and support Bush – rubbish bru!

    Another thought, when given the opportunity in the referendum that decided on a course for change, a majority of white South Africans voted for change, not because they had to, but because they were finally asked the question. It is a singularly unique situation where the majority of a minority voted to give away control to the majority under whose rule they did not know what to expect.

    Lump all whites together on this as you like but as you see with the ANC, a powerful ruling party gets its way time and again, regardless of what the minority (ironically still included are the white english speakers – do we qualify for EEE?:)) thinks or says.

    And as for why nothing was done by said minority who could see what was going on, well, why don’t you get a crowd together and march for the farmers being systematically killed on our farms or for the refugees who come limping in from Zimbabwe? All great wrongs. You don’t because it does not directly affect your day to day life enough, you are normal, congratulations.

    So lets hop off the moral high horse, understand that the article’s point was to illustrate how any people, white, black, German, Zulu or Xhosa are capable of atrocity and realise that the much-beloved ANC is capable of it as well. All they need is the right person under the right conditions or do we think we are so much better than the Germans, the Americans, the Zimbabweans or any other country for that matter? We have nobody to guard the guardians as nio opposition poses any threat to the ANC. Instead of seeing this as a good thing, I would ask voting South Africa to see this as a bad thing. It means no balance of power.

  • Jon Quirk

    The question has been asked – whether Apartheid was an Afrikaans phenomenon.

    The Nats from the command centre of the Broaderbond controlled, or attempted to control, everything. They used “swart Gevaar” tactics to corral enough of the electorate to vote for them (having carefully gerrymandered the electoral role to ensure maximum representivity of the rural verkrampte heartlands), they used patronage and largesse to ensure that all arms of Government, Parastals, military, police et al were the sole domain of the Volk and in doing so gave themselves a free rein to trample on press freedoms, manipulate Government contracts and control the judiciary and legislature as well as Governance itself.

    Fast forward to 2007 and we have Pahadheid; the inner coterie of the Mbeki regime gerrymandering the ANC voters roll, allowing crime to run rampant thus using crime as the 2007 version of “Swart Gevaar” attempting to muzzle the press, trampling on the judiciary and ensuring that all Government contracts are awarded to the inner chosen few.

    It would be cynical in the extreme to say that at the end of the struggle to entrench democracy, respect for the law and equality before the law, and human rights that all we have achieved is to allow the replacement of one self-serving narrow elite with another of a different tribe.

    It will be interesting to see whether the ANC can attain the moral high ground that the then white electorate achieved in 1991 when they effectively voted out the Nats, or whether “black solidarity” will prevail and march us all the way to Harare.

    Tokyo Sexwale has shown there can be a way; are there enough people of courage and conviction within the ANC to heed his call?

  • Jon Quirk

    On the subject of obfuscation and duplicity, Mbeki has taken this to a whole new Machaevellian level; which only goes to show I suppose the lengths to which anyone will go to confuse and deny when first they get caught up in the web of corruption and deceit; it all started out with the little matter of the arms deal and significant backhanders further details of which can be found in various German and swedish media and then added to of course bt the Kebble millions – now all is sacrificed and shady characters supported unnecessarily; all in an attempt to keep those two poisoned genies in the bottle. Principle is often the first to be jettisoned when it comes to self-preservation.

  • Tash Joseph

    How did we go from discussing white complicity in apartheid, to the evils of Mbeki and his cronies?

    I think the original article raised some fascinating and very, very valid points and it makes me smile rather wryly to see that we’ve steered the discussion rather rapidly in the opposite direction.

    Grant W points out that the majority of whites voted for change “not because they had to, but because they were finally asked the question”.

    That question – should apartheid be scrapped; should we move towards democracy and relenquish minority control – had been asked a number of times, in a number of ways.

    The reality is that MOST white South Africans, English and Afrikaans, sat back and let the regime strangle the majority of South African citizens; sat back at let apartheid happen. If all of those people had risen up and attempted to make a real difference, things would have come to a head much sooner.

    Instead, white South Africans (again, MOST), let apartheid happen because it was easy, and because those were the days of braaivleis, sunny skies and Chevrolets, and it was glorious to be a (white) South African, cocooned in a fantasy world where the black masses shut up, put up and went home promptly at 6pm every evening, leaving the streets clean and peaceful.

    Great article, Traps. :) Made me think.

  • Michael Trapido

    Tash thank you for the kind words.

    If it makes us think then the article has achieved it’s purpose.

  • Grant W

    Tash, I take your points but would like to point out the reality vs. the comfortable art of hindsight. We are only able to discuss this academically because the cards fell as they did. There could have been so many different outcomes. The reality is far more complex than people just sitting back and not ‘rising’ up and saying ‘no’.

    The NATS arranged the vote so that even a concerted effort by progressive liberal people, lets steer away from English and Afrikaans here, would not be able to oust them from power. Many hundreds of thousands of people did vote against them in every election but it was not enough. We perhaps forget how oppressive the state was towards white people who did not tow the line, as well as towards black people. To rise up against this state that controlled one of the world’s most powerful armies would have been suicide and you would have needed great motivation and huge support to do so.

    It also seems silly now but the ANC and their allies were funded, trained and supported by the Soviet Union and the fear of what might happen if communism was instituted here was a very real one in the 70’s and 80’s and the NATS took full advantage. The fall of the Berlin wall is actually what broke the deadlock here and removed the greater fear and allowed us to focus on our internal politics.

    Now we can sit here and look back and say this and that should have happened based on our current historical perspective and our moral guilt but if the Russians had marched into Pretoria we would now be having very different problems, comrade, and the world would be a very different place. They did not and we now have the luxury, for that is what it truly is, to try and all live together harmoniously.

    Within that framework we need to find a solution that allows ALL of us the freedom we need to prosper. Yes, white males probably benefited hugely under apartheid BUT I would also like to point out that virtually all the skills needed to grow a modern industrial economy were imported by the self same group of Europeans into South Africa in the first place. You would therefore expect them to be the most wealthy group, apartheid or not…not so? Every single country has a wealthy elite. Taking an axe to the prosperity of that group of people is not going to level the playing field, it’s going to damage the playing field.

    The fact remains…when the question was asked, the conditions were right and the people voted for change. Does that make us good or bad? Well if we were all such terrible racists why did more than half of us say ‘yes’ we want change? It could have been 15% and the war would have continued and who knows what could have happened. Plenty of people would have been happy with that result. What a different place we could be living in now. Discredit it if you like but that referendum was pivotal and the timing was no chance happening and here we all are.

  • MidaFo

    Every person, every group of people, or country, has good and bad points and responsible people do not ignore the bad, but deal with them. I think you will agree.
    What is at issue here is responsibility. Because we, us whiteys, voted in that way back then does not give us the right to claim “Ha! Job is done” and ignore our part in the previous and current establishment of the endemic injustice within SA. The work is still to come. Let us do it. Let us not point fingers at “THEM” when the going gets tough. To do so is idiotic, meaning common and thoughtless or, in another way, easy and lazy. There is much to do and we need to work with understanding and compassion and persistence for the rest of our lives. It requires fundamental alterations in our understanding of self and others, which is a searching process and often tough, but the good news, as the way THEY voted clearly indicates, is that the response from the people of SA is a fantastic reward. This in fact is life itself.
    Which is where here, that we all are, really is.

  • Grant W

    Yes, yes, good and bad, black and white…if only it were that simple MidaFo. My entire point about the vote during apartheid was that there were other global factors at play and that plenty of responsible people tried to vote the NATS out but could not. Perhaps you could elaborate exactly how the responsible white South Africans should have responded, from the safe perch of your hindsight couch? Please note, there is a huge difference between the moral argument here and the practical one.

    As for the ‘work’ you talk of, please explain in practical terms what you mean. It sounds a lot like the rallying call, ‘lets all fight crime together’ which is simply government spin as explained so beautifully by Mr Lancaster. Lets stop repeating party lines, analyse what is being said and think for ourselves here.

    And I resent the lazy, easy comment…takes a lot of work to type all this stuff out 😉

  • Grant W

    Huge apologies…Mr Lankester not Lancaster

  • Tash Joseph

    Moral guilt? Sure, probably some of that knocking around in my head.

    I just get a little tired of hearing older white people tell me that there was nothing, nothing AT ALL, that they could do to ATTEMPT to change things during apartheid.

    You are right: the reality is that no vote for the opposition could really have made a difference, and that for the majority of the apartheid era, negotiation/discussion/election wouldn’t have made a damn difference.

    BUT I get angry when I see how many older white SAfricans throw their hands up and say there was NOTHING to be done – why, then, were there white people involved in the resistance movement at all? Why did SOME white people get involved, throw their ideological weight behind scrapping apartheid, lose their lives (in some cases) because of it?

    I think the reality is that apartheid was EASY for white people, just as the Holocaust was EASY for ordinary citizens who knew damn well what the smoke rising from Dachau’s chimneys meant. It was EASY to let it all happen, not to raise your voice, because the apartheid government created a false Utopia in which the streets were safe, the unruly swart gevaar was subdued, and your children could sleep soundly at night.

    So my point – made in a rambling and disjointed fashion! – is that while white people may not have been able to STOP apartheid, they could bloody well have tried, rather than sitting back and getting fat, happy and rich. And then, for shame, spending the post-’94 years smugly proclaiming that of course they’re liberals…

  • MidaFo

    Dear GRANT W
    To quote:
    “Yes, white males probably benefited hugely under apartheid BUT I would also like to point out that virtually all the skills needed to grow a modern industrial economy were imported by the self same group of Europeans into South Africa in the first place. You would therefore expect them to be the most wealthy group, apartheid or not…not so? Every single country has a wealthy elite. Taking an axe to the prosperity of that group of people is not going to level the playing field, it’s going to damage the playing field.”

    Thanks for the smiley but this quote is the point that gives my original response an edge. It is extraordinarily insensitive to the details of the destructive process by which the whites got the money and land and maintain the nefarious economic balance.

    I have run three concurrent businesses in SA, lived a modestly comfortable life and educated my children, not because I am clever but because of the wonderful labour supplied mostly by black men. They produced products of a higher standard than the British workers making the same products (according to the Chairman and MD of the licence holding Co.in the UK and my own observations)

    They received more than anyone in our area paid labourers. The circumstances of going prices, their lack of education, costs associated with capital expenditure, in other words the state of the economy in SA precluded them being paid enough to properly reward them in accordance with the relevant rates of pay in England and their standard of living was accordingly very much lower than that of the worker in the UK who did not live in squatter camps and shit in the bush, who had motor cars and good beds, good health care and whose children went to schools with educated teachers. My father had the same experience and I was well educated on the basis of that.

    This awareness is absent from your writing, which is severely compromised as a result. You are not alone, which is why I choose the words I do.

    Idiot by the way means common man who thinks predominantly of nothing but self and today.

    Common means ‘in common’, meaning we are all idiots, you, me and the rest, now and forever. The aim on this idiotic earth is to supersede the idiot within and seek the higher planes of honour, generosity, integrity and we all know the rest of the pertinent words here.

    We are educated after all. And no! I am not living it up now but working till I die, but with children who are wealthier than I have ever been, which is a hell of a lot more secure than any of my previous employees.

  • Grant W

    Tash, I am not a monster, I hate that apartheid happened and I am ashamed that it took us so long to bring the system down. Nothing can condone it and I would never attempt to do so. I am, however, also analytical as well as emotional and in this sense I understand that what you propose should have happened for moral reasons, could not have happened for practical reasons.

    Regimes like the one we were under would not have tolerated it and it would have meant a white-on-white civil war here. We could be having the same discussion years from now about Zimbabwe. Why don’t you leave your job, find arms dealers, raise a group of moral objectors and declare war on Mugabe’s regime today? Fight for those poor souls there, starving and being beaten, removed and killed. You won’t, because although it is morally right to do so, it is practically and logistically not feasible.

    You and your children need to survive, to eat, to work and to be happy. If you are a normal human being, you do not go out of your way to put all of that in jeopardy. That makes us moral hypocrites, perhaps, but normal human beings. And if you think this is a ‘white’ issue then why have black South Africans, those who have fought for their rights before, not jumped at the chances to right the wrongs going on under our noses? Show us how its done, lead the way? Because there is no practical and feasible way to do this without risking life and limb and losing your job and possibly getting killed. Maslow is a reality. That is why white South Africa did nothing and we are not evil as a result, no matter how convenient that would be to a simple equation of guilt and the guilty.

    MidaFo, you sound angry and once again are arguing emotionally. My point is that industry in South Africa is dominated by white people for 2 main reasons not 1. They are: skills obtained and imported from European links as well as exploitation of the black labour force in South Africa and NOT just from the latter. Our ‘crime’ was not to share our knowledge and uplift those around us, not that this is common practise anywhere in the world. Now if you have a valid counter-argument, please lets hear it. All I am trying to do here is to illustrate that the complexity of the truth is being hidden by emotion and politically correct repetition.

  • terry e

    Who are you actually appealing to. The racist, slaver British are just like this lot and, by all accounts ,the Israelis are doing the same to innocent women and children in the Middle East.

    Whilst Mammon remains the god of the West these nations who like to think they are a cut above the rest remain just cheap and nasty hypocrites.